It’s a long way from Hollywood, yet a swampy corner of southeast Mississippi has given the film world its latest hero — or maybe antihero.
His name is Newton Knight, born 180 years ago and played by Matthew McConaughey in the “The Free State of Jones,” which opened around the country on Friday (June 24).
The movie tells the true (okay, true-ish) story of Knight and a small band of farmers and slaves who successfully fought their fellow Civil War-era Confederates to declare Jones County, Miss., loyal to the United States — and free of slavery.
McConaughey, in an interview with The Daily Beast, described Knight as divinely inspired even if he “was not a ‘turn the other cheek’ New Testament guy,” as the actor put it.
“Knight had a moral code rooted in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence: love thy neighbor as thyself, and all men are created equal,” McConaughey, 46, said. “So he had a very radical relationship with his own independence, and interdependence — which is very American. Extremely American.”
That’s good Hollywood P.R. Here’s the history behind the real Knight, which is just as powerful:
Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army at the beginning of the war, in July 1851. Some scholars say he did so unwillingly, while others — most notably Victoria E. Bynum who wrote the book the movie is named for and based on — thinks he loved being a soldier.
“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” Wyatt Moulds, a history professor and direct descendant of Knight told The Smithsonian magazine.
“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat. A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”
After a big Confederate defeat in late 1862, Knight and other Jones County men deserted.
Bynum writes that the tipping point was the passage of the “Twenty Negro Law,” which excused one white man from the war for every 20 black slaves he owned. Knight and most of the men he fought with were small farmers with no slaves.
Back at their farms, Knight and other deserters found their families starving, as Confederate officials taxed them to the brink, taking livestock, crops, food and anything else they wanted for the army.
In October 1863, a Confederate major, Amos MacLemore, arrived in Ellisville, the seat of Jones County, to hunt deserters. On the night of Oct. 5, someone — most likely Knight — shot and killed him. A band of deserters and their supporters then elected Knight their leader.
They raised an American flag over the Jones County courthouse and declared it the “Free State of Jones.”
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